German Democratic Republic stamp commemorating the murders of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, 1949. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.
This month, the German public not only commemorated the centenary of World War One’s conclusion on 11/11, but also the foundation of the first democratic system on German territory – the Weimar Republic – which was proclaimed two days earlier, on 9 November, 1918. This republic only existed for a bit more than fourteen years and was threatened by radical right violence and terror from the very beginning, to which it ultimately succumbed.
During the first months after the armistice, the country was in a civil war-like condition: unrest in Berlin was in fact the reason why the first elected parliament had to meet in Weimar (hence the initially pejorative name given to the republic). Different political factions had clashed in bloody conflicts in late 1918 and early 1919. The so called Freikorps, which largely consisted of former soldiers, fought against the revolutionary uprisings in the country, such as the shortlived ‘Munich Soviet’ in Bavaria. At the same time, anti-Republican army personnel committed massacres on prisoners, “summary executions” and murders of political enemies.
The revolutionary politicians Kurt Eisner, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were among the victims of these radical right paramilitary groups during the so-called ‘Spartacist Uprising’. Whereas the birth of the Weimar Republic had been characterised by rather disorganised murders, the years 1921 and 1922 saw targeted assassinations of left-wing politicians and the so called ‘Systempolitiker’, namely representatives of the Weimar Republic.
Radical right terrorist groups arose quickly, such as the Organisation Consul (O.C.), emerging from former Freikorps militants. This nationalist and antisemitic organisation murdered the former Reich Minister of Finance, Matthias Erzberger, a member of the Catholic Centre Party in August 1921; and Walther Rathenau, the German Foreign Minister, in June 1922. This prompted the famous cri de coeur, “Four years of murder – by God enough”, which Kurt Tucholsky inserted into his poem, “Rathenau”, shortly after the assassination.
“Four years of political murder” was also the title of a book published in 1922 by the statistician Ernst Julius Gumbel (1891-1966). Referring to the enormous rise in politically motivated murders that had taken place between 1918 and 1922, Gumbel collected his data with meticulous precision; he counted 354 murders committed by the radical right and 22 murders committed by the radical left. He also pointed out that the criminal prosecution of radical right and radical left murders differed fundamentally: 326 murders carried out by radical right perpetrators remained unpunished whereas this was true for only four left-wing motivated murders. The average sentence for a radical right murder was four months imprisonment and a two Reichsmark fine, Gumbel computed. A radical left perpetrator typically faced 15 years in prison or a death sentence. Although the victims came from all parts of society and sometimes were, like Rathenau, even members of the acting government, the murders were accompanied by a climate of acceptance.
The violence continued after 1922. The Schwarze Reichswehr (‘Black Reichswehr’), an illegal military unit that existed alongside the official Reichswehr, became notorious for the assassinations of “traitors” in their own ranks. In 1923, Adolf Hitler along with the general Erich Ludendorff and their followers tried to stage a coup against the government in Munich which failed as a military move, but enhanced the prominence of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP). The Republic was only granted a brief respite: starting in 1924, a few years of relative stability began, which ended with the Depression from 1929.
Violence on the streets
In the late 1920s, the paramilitary Sturmabteilung (Nazism’s SA) brought radical right violence onto the streets. Street fights, assassinations and brawls at political meetings claimed hundreds of victims. These violent struggles reached their climax in summer 1932 and shook the Weimar Republic to its very foundations. The usually conservative and even monarchist judiciary exercised a maximum of leniency concerning their crimes.
The Weimar Republic was thus shaped by overt radical right terror, particularly in its first and in its final years. Although the victims came from all parts of society and sometimes were, like Rathenau, even members of the acting government, the murders were accompanied by a climate of acceptance. The Reichswehr, for example, supported the illegal units of the Schwarze Reichswehr with money, weapons and instructors; the usually conservative and even monarchist judiciary exercised a maximum of leniency concerning their crimes.
These radical right murders succeeded in weakening left-wing and republican movements and sought to undermine the political stability of Germany’s republic. Not surprisingly, the National Socialists celebrated the perpetrators of murder after 1933 and granted them near exemption from punishment. A historical perspective on radical right terror in the Weimar Republic thus reveals that the approval and performance of politically-motivated violence has been a core element of fascist or antisemitic activism for a century.